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Where does Sunak stand on Ukraine?

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has attracted more controversy than his predecessors when it comes to Ukraine. Most renowned for his business credentials, the UK’s new leader has pursued a quieter approach to the conflict. However, does this reality amount to a simple change in style or a fundamental shift?

January 10, 2023 - Niall Gray - Articles and Commentary

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in Kyiv in November 2022. Photo: Presidential Administration of Ukraine flickr.com

Long considered Kyiv’s most enthusiastic ally among the big powers, the United Kingdom has continued to provide Ukraine with extensive weapons supplies in response to Russia’s invasion. Such links appeared even before the Kremlin’s full-scale assault in February, with NLAW anti-tank weapons rushed to the country as Moscow deployed its forces along the border. This hurried response has ultimately given way to an extensive relationship between the two states. While ever-more sophisticated weapons have flowed into the beleaguered country, close contacts have been forged between political elites. This is exemplified by the strong personal bond enjoyed by Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Boris Johnson. Indeed, the former British prime minister visited Kyiv four times in 2022, giving him a unique insight into the private thoughts of the Ukrainian president and his administration. Such intimate links have ultimately served to make Britain the second-largest provider of military aid to Ukraine, with the country providing far more equipment than comparable states such as France and Germany.

However, a lot has changed in British domestic politics since Johnson forged ahead with this extensive support. The man himself was deposed in July following a series of mounting internal disputes over his personal conduct. As the outgoing PM made a final trip to Ukraine to assuage fears, his ousting would become only the first in a series of political crises for the UK. A two month long Conservative leadership election gave way to the shortest administration in British history under Liz Truss. Despite her hawkish outlook on Russia, Truss would only have 49 days in office to realise this amid growing economic uncertainty (often connected to Moscow’s invasion) and incessant feuding. This chaos would then finally see the party parachute in former second choice candidate Rishi Sunak. Viewed as more of a numbers man than his predecessors, the new prime minister has walked a fine line between his market instincts and the country’s generous spending regarding Ukraine. This is further complicated by a less dramatic leadership style, especially when compared to Johnson’s Churchillian rhetoric. However, does such nuance amount to a clear shift from previous policy?

A two-faced approach?

To answer this question, it is perhaps best to first consider Sunak’s time in frontline politics before his election to the top job. After all, the new prime minister has held several high-ranking positions since his election to parliament in 2015. The most relevant to Ukraine is undoubtedly his role as chancellor from early 2020 to the summer of 2022. Well known for his business acumen, Sunak was responsible for masterminding the UK’s approach to both sanctions on Moscow as well as non-lethal aid to Ukraine. This is exemplified by his Spring Statement in March, which discussed restrictions on Russian finances alongside a package of up to one billion pounds in support of Kyiv. However, this speech would also cast doubts over his long-term commitment that would haunt him to this day. Stressing that sanctions “are not cost free for us at home”, the then chancellor would draw a clear link between the war and the increasingly difficult economic climate faced by people across Britain. As a result, opponents would quickly brand Sunak a softer touch on Russia, with Liz Truss leveraging such nuance against him during his unsuccessful leadership campaign. All of this has allowed an air of uncertainty to envelope the second-choice PM’s foreign policy, with pro-Ukraine rhetoric often overshadowed by discussions on the domestic economy.

Sunak’s first few months in full charge of London’s Ukraine policy have subsequently attracted as much praise as criticism. Of course, it is important to note that the new leader has made an effort to build on the legacy left by Johnson. For example, he made Kyiv the destination for his first official bilateral visit abroad. Landing in the Ukrainian capital a few weeks after becoming leader in late October, Sunak declared that “I am here today to say the UK and our allies will continue to stand with Ukraine, as it fights to end this barbarous war and deliver a just peace.” This was supported by an additional 50 million pounds in defence aid. Focused on technology targeting Russia’s new deployment of Iranian drones, the package appeared to show Sunak’s commitment to an evolving situation on the ground. This was received with great enthusiasm by Zelenskyy, who later stated on Twitter that “With friends like you by our side, we are confident in our victory.” As a result, it may be argued that Sunak is largely committed to the core tenets of London’s established doctrine. While he has not visited the country as many times as his predecessor, it is possible to argue that Sunak is simply pursuing a less public approach to proceedings.

At the same time, this more subdued manner may also conceal more critical aspects of the prime minister’s thoughts on the war. This is what was suggested by a high-profile leak on December 16th. Claiming to operate at the heart of the British political establishment, a source from the civil service stronghold of Whitehall declared that the PM is looking for a “Goldman Sachs dashboard” examination of arms supplies to Ukraine. Such language amounts to business jargon for analysing investments based on their performance. As the source stated, “This is about looking at what we have put in, what we have got out.” Fears now abound that this could lead to a curtail on supplies if Ukraine cannot definitively prove their effectiveness on the battlefield. Despite this, a government source immediately rubbished such claims. The unnamed Downing Street representative dismissed Sunak’s supposed scepticism and stressed that “His support for Ukraine is unwavering and it is not true that he is taking a more cautious approach.” While the veracity of these statements remains unclear, the leak has at least revealed that the nature of arms supplies is now being actively debated at the very top. Like so many things in politics, it seems that the truth surrounding Sunak’s approach may subsequently lie somewhere in the middle.

Rhetoric and reality

Overall, it is unlikely that the UK is going to announce an overnight shift in its approach to Ukraine. Zelenskyy’s reported mid-December appeal to Sunak that his country “needs” him is understandable in the circumstances, as Kyiv is now faced with resisting Russian aggression in brutal conditions. The prime minister may now even require qualifiers to such appeals if the leak is to be believed. However, it does appear that his commitment to Britain’s established approach is built on more than rhetoric. This is made clear by his continued willingness to engage with a foreign policy community with little appetite for dramatic change. Of course, it should be remembered that Sunak made sure that Defence Secretary Ben Wallace was one of the few faces to survive the summer’s political chaos unscathed. This minister has continued to operate at the heart of a hawkish defence establishment focused on a continuity approach to Ukraine. Due to this, it seems that the new prime minister does at least acknowledge expert concerns. This includes Chief of the Defence Staff Admiral Sir Tony Radakin’s polite warning on December 14th that the Russian “cupboard is bare”. It could be argued therefore that any possible reassessment of arms supplies would face considerable opposition should it be deemed to go too far.

At the same time, the potential political nature of such criticism must also be appreciated in today’s circumstances. It is clear that Sunak is still faced with a thoroughly restless party wrought with factionalism following the chaos of the summer. This is especially true as poll after poll suggests that the Conservatives are destined for the opposition benches without considerable change. Even the direct language used in the aforementioned leak appears to hint at internal dissent. For instance, the Whitehall source openly praised Johnson’s approach to Ukraine, stating that “Wars aren’t won [by dashboards]. Wars are won on instinct. At the start of this it was Boris (Johnson) sitting down and saying: ‘Let’s just go for this.’ So Rishi needs to channel his inner Boris on foreign policy though not of course on anything else.” While restrained in its praise, such language does appear to correspond to real divisions in the party. For instance, a recent push against current asylum policy was centred on Johnson and some of his former Cabinet. Given the new prime minister’s limited time to prove himself, it seems that his fledgling Ukraine credentials may subsequently be viewed as another weak point. The true intentions behind such attacks could therefore focus on more than just Sunak’s thoughts on the conflict.

Quantity or quality?

In light of these developments, it seems that we know as much about Sunak’s Ukraine policy now as we did at the start of his premiership. This speaks to the vagaries that continue to plague his approach, with enthusiastic rhetoric perhaps not always supported behind the scenes. Faced with such turmoil, it could be contended that any planned audit will most likely be qualitative in nature. While powerful figures in both the political and defence establishments continue to exert informal influence, it ought to be remembered that the new prime minister is actively restrained by measurable targets regarding supplies to Ukraine. For example, a December report from the House of Commons Library noted that the UK is still determined to match or even exceed this year’s arms commitment of 2.3 billion pounds in 2023. This generous commitment may also have encouraged Downing Street to recently clarify that it wishes to “ensure we are delivering the best possible assistance”. The new prime minister’s approach may subsequently focus on maximising the effectiveness of funding in testing economic circumstances. This fine tuning would also allow him to avoid any serious prospects of even more domestic criticism, something he simply cannot afford in such uncertain times.

As a result, we may well see a shift in how the UK actively provides aid to Ukraine. Of course, Britain’s approach to the war up until now has been dominated by supplies of everything from infantry weapons to sophisticated missile systems. Such deliveries look set to continue despite the audit, with Sunak himself promising as much during December’s NATO Joint Expeditionary Force summit in Riga. Describing Russia’s call for a ceasefire as “completely meaningless”, the PM promised a further 250 million pounds in artillery ammunition and urged allies to strengthen Kyiv’s air defence. Given the growing “air war” now affecting Ukrainian infrastructure, it appears that Sunak is now pursuing a more targeted approach that responds to changing threats. Such tailored funding may also provide more value for the public purse, with long-term skills development an increasingly important part of British aid. This is best seen regarding Operation Interflex, a UK-led training programme that represents the country’s first doctrine tailored to the conflict. Involving eleven other NATO and allied countries, this programme aims to train ten thousand Ukrainian soldiers every 120 days. Viewed through the eyes of a shrewd government, this approach may well be viewed as the way forward. While Britain would maintain its prominent position, an ever-expanding funding programme in which countries pool resources would no doubt appeal to a more business-savvy administration in London.

In conclusion, it is important to look beyond the headlines when confronted with a topic as controversial as Sunak’s Ukraine policy. The prime minister’s actions have encouraged a flurry of emotional responses over the months, ranging from fears of Ukraine’s possible abandonment to assertions that nothing has changed following a summer of political chaos. These declarations present a black and white view of the situation in which any nuanced reality receives little attention. This complexity is ultimately reflected in the story’s main actor, with Sunak often quickly responding to criticism with measurable action. In the short term, those within the government will be at pains to make sure that the disagreement surrounding the PM does not damage Britain’s valuable leadership position. It ought to be remembered that the UK has often found itself able to wield influence over a more sceptical administration in Washington. This government recently enjoyed an unprecedented in-person visit from Zelenskyy, who praised the US in “uniting the global community to protect freedom and international law”. Despite this, the Ukrainian leader still clearly cherishes the links he has forged with a British elite that continues to punch above its weight on aid. After all, he even found time to offer some words in the Christmas edition of The Spectator, the Conservatives’ unofficial magazine. These links will prove even more crucial in the coming weeks, as Ukraine continues to struggle through a winter in which existential questions remain front and centre.

Niall Gray is the copy editor and proofreader of New Eastern Europe. He is also an AHRC-funded History PhD candidate at the University of Strathclyde.

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